About three years ago Shonda Hamilton decided to change her life. The Washtenaw County resident was working as a patient care technician at the University of Michigan and engaged to a man with whom she had an 11-year-old daughter. But the relationship was unhealthy, and having had enough, she took her daughter and left.
She started therapy at SafeHouse Center, where her therapist suggested that she look into getting financial guidance from the United Way of Washtenaw County. The suggestion profoundly changed Hamilton's life.
"(The therapist) knew that I was desperate to rebuild my credit and purchase a condo and a car. Imagine! There were 21 inquiries on my credit before I was able to get a used vehicle," Hamilton says. "When I left my ex, my credit score was 475. With the help of United Way my credit score jumped to 700 in a matter of 18 months."
Hamilton is just one of the thousands of people the United Way of Washtenaw County has impacted through its financial stability programs, which include free financial coaching and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA).
"We put power and resources back in the hands of our clients by making sure they get the maximum refund possible. And when they put money back into the community then everybody benefits," says Pam Smith, president of United Way of Washtenaw County.
"There were people who were essentially caught in a trap"
Smith says United Way of Washtenaw County's financial stability programs started around 2016 because of the alarming things United Way staff were hearing from their partners, and what they already knew from their other programs. In short, safety net services that were originally designed for crisis intervention were being accessed on a daily basis.
"There were people who were essentially caught in a trap with no way to move ahead," Smith says. "We started to study things more in depth and found that if you were born into poverty in Washtenaw County then you were more likely to remain in poverty."
It was clear that people needed help understanding their personal finances and financial literacy essentials. How to repair a credit score, devising a budget, reducing debt, and understanding predatory lending fees were just some of the skills United Way staff knew they had to teach.
Determining local needs was a community effort that quickly gained traction. Early conversations gave birth to the Washtenaw Financial Stability Coalition, which is comprised of over 25 local partners. Those early discussions were also instrumental in the creation of United Way's Mobile Financial Resource Team (MFRT).
"MFRT came about because we heard from the community that we needed to meet people where they were, since transportation was often a barrier," Smith says. "So we'll go to a coffee shop or a church basement or wherever people feel comfortable meeting and offer various financial stability workshops."
MFRT now has one full-time and one part-time financial coach. United Way also has over 80 VITA volunteers, who provide free tax preparation services for low-income individuals and families in Washtenaw County. In 2019 the program logged 1,248 free returns filed and $1.9 million in tax returns and credits returned to Washtenaw County.
Smith stresses that United Way is committed to doing things with the community, rather than to or for the community. Helping people on a personal level is paramount and it's what drives the organization's staff.
Sophia Barrios was nervous when she first contacted United Way a few years ago. A flyer posted at Washtenaw Community College, where she was taking an ESL course, had caught her eye. It advertised free tax preparation services, but Barrios couldn't quite believe that there were no strings attached.
She set aside her incredulity and made an appointment to meet with a United Way financial adviser. A time-sensitive need was gnawing at her. Barrios had immigrated from Venezuela in 2016, and her mom and two children were still there, waiting for her help. But in order for her to complete their immigration paperwork, she needed to get her taxes done.
"I had just started working in a restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor and didn't make enough money to pay for tax help," Barrios says. "United Way helped me when I needed it most and it was all at no cost."
When Barrios filed her taxes, the man who helped her apologized that her tax refund was only $500.
"He touched my heart," she says. "Even though I was born here, because I grew up in Venezuela I still felt like an immigrant. That day I felt like someone cared and that I was part of America."
Barrios took her tax return money and invested in a new laptop that allowed her to take a payroll course. And she enrolled in VITA to help others as she had been helped. She already had an accounting degree from Venezuela and was hopeful she would gain additional related skills so she could secure a better-paying job. Today, she works at United Way as an administrative assistant.
"I was a professor in Venezuela and my self-esteem was hurting at the restaurant," she says. "Today I am grateful for a job that both pays my bills and allows me to use my mental abilities more."
She says the best part of her job is seeing people come in looking worried about the cost to get financial help and then seeing their relief when she tells them it's truly free.
"We are on the road to excellence"
A little over a year ago, Willie Williams was working at the Salvation Army in Ann Arbor. He also had a second job working part-time at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a janitor. When he got an offer to work there full-time he was overjoyed.
But happiness and anticipation soon turned to despair and anxiety. Not owing government taxes was one of the eligibility requirements of the new job — and Williams was several years behind in filing.
"It was overwhelming because I had many jobs over the years and some of the places had gone out of business and I needed to track down a lot of paperwork," Williams says.
When he contacted H&R Block, it didn't take him long to realize there was no way he'd be able to afford to get all his back taxes completed. Seeing his new job slipping away, he decided to take his sister's advice to reach out to United Way about free tax help.
About two months after United Way got on the case, Williams' tax issues were under control and he got the full-time job at the EPA.
Williams is still happily employed at the EPA. He says if United Way staff hadn't been so caring he wouldn't be where he is today.
"It took over two months to get my taxes filed and to arrange a payment plan for the taxes I owed," he says. "There were so many times that I just wanted to give up on everything. But United Way had my back and helped me explain the holdup to the EPA."
Hamilton was also profoundly touched by her experience with United Way and says her financial coach helped her rebuild her life.
"United Way taught me how to manage my money and not let my money manage me. And I get to pass that on to my daughter," she says.
Hamilton learned how to create a budget, as well as a system where she had to put money into different envelopes earmarked for different needs.
She describes the process as painful, but empowering. She was able to save money in the long run and build healthy spending habits.
In the past, Hamilton and her daughter used to share a $6 meal at McDonald's. Now Hamilton is proud to be able to dine at Red Lobster if she wants to.
The day that she was finally able to put a full tank of gas in her car for the first time was a particularly momentous victory for Hamilton — who is now also a nurse and an aspiring inspirational speaker.
"In the past I was lucky if I could even put half a tank of gas in my car. I told my daughter then that the future is bright and we are on the road to excellence," she says.
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe except Willie Williams photo courtesy of United Way of Washtenaw County.